1970's Chicago Bears: Peaks & Valleys
1976 Chicago Bears team photo.
Organizational changes began to turn the team's fortunes around by the end of
this decade, but not before they suffered the lowest points in their history.
Before the 1970 season even began, the Bears reeled from the
aftermath of several events.
1969's 1-13 record was bad, but apparently was not bad
enough. Their only win of the season had been against the
Pittsburgh Steelers, who ironically also finished 1-13. In January, a
coin toss was held to determine which team would pick first in the NFL
draft. The prize in that draft was Louisana Tech quarterback Terry
Bradshaw, who would be a welcome improvement to either of the clubs.
Bear executive Ed McCaskey called the coin toss, held at a
hotel in New Orleans, and lost. An unidentified Chicago
sportswriter reportedly yelled out "McCaskey you bum, you can't even win a
After losing out on Bradshaw, Chicago sent its #2 pick in the
draft to Green Bay for three veteran players, none of which remained with the
Bears for more than two seasons.
And throughout the spring of 1970, Brian Piccolo continued to
fight a valiant but losing battle against embroynal cell carcinoma, a
relatively rare disease. The cancer spread through his lymphatic system
to his breast and liver, and the 26-year-old father of three perised in
June. The following summer, the movie Brian's Song would be
partially filmed at the team's training camp in Rensselaer, IN, and Piccolo and
the Bears became Hollywood legends.
In August 1970, the Bears and St. Louis Cardinals
scrimmaged in Rensselaer, donating the profits to the Piccolo family, and the
Bears actually got off to a 2-0 start. The start was followed
by four straight losses, and the team finished the season 6-8.
In '71, the team moved to a new home at Soldier Field on
Chicago's lakefront, and again finished the season with a 6-8 record.
George Halas and his club's President George S. "Mugs" Halas Jr., then
tabbed assistant Abe Gibron to take over the team.
The Gibron years, 1972-74, were perhaps the worst on the
football field but best on the sidelines in the organization's history.
"Abe loved to eat," as stated by so many of his players, and seemingly
dedicated as much time at training camp amassing enormous cookouts as they did
practicing. Gibron spouted controversial lines to
the media, fought a losing battle with his pants falling down on the
sidelines, and led the Bears to three straight losing seasons.
In 1974, the younger Halas decided to take a huge step in the
history of the franchise, for the first time turning the day-to-day operations
of the team over to a General Manager. Hired for this task was Jim Finks,
architect of the great Minnesota Vikings teams of the early 1970's. His
first order of business was the firing of Gibron, who in his last comments
as coach said he felt blessed to have been "one of the few NFL head
coaches, not one of the 50,000 sportswriters."
Finks hired veteran NFL and CFL coach Jack Pardee to take over
the club, and made Jackson State's Walter Payton his first draft pick in
1975. By 1977 his team had rebuilt and reached the postseason for
the first time since 1963. In the playoffs, though, Chicago was blown out
37-7 at Dallas. At the same time, Pardee was focusing on selling
his house in Chicago while he prepared to take over as head coach of
the Washington Redskins, leaving Finks to search for his second head coach in
In 1978, Finks hired Vikings defensive coordinator Neill
Armstong to be the new top boss. Armstong made the playoffs once in his
four seasons with the Bears, but perhaps more importantly brought in Buddy Ryan
as defensive coordinator. Ryan would revolutionize defensive
football in the NFL with his "46" package. He perhaps revolutionized
offensive football as well, as offensive thinkers now had to come up with
a quick passing game to neutralize the Ryan-inspired pass rush.
The Bears set a franchise record by losing eight straight
games in the middle of the 1978 season, but saved mental disaster for the
future by finishing 5-1. That finish would be reprised in '79.
The team started the season 3-5 but finished 5-3 to make the playoffs for the
second time in the decade.
The playoffs were not easily made in '79, as due to a
complicated playoff tiebreaking formula, the Bears would have to beat the St.
Louis Cardinals by more than 33 points to clinch. The morning of the
game, players awoke to learn that team President "Mugs" Halas had died
prematurely of a heart attack, giving them perhaps extra motivation as they
wore their black armbands on that day.
Chicago beat St. Louis by the score of 42-6, making the
playoffs, but were again defeated in the first round at Philadelphia by a 27-17
That playoff game was the last for linebacker Doug Buffone,
who played for the team for 14 seasons. Buffone considers himself lucky,
as stars Gale Sayers (retired in 1971) and Dick Butkus (retired in 1973), never
played in a postseason game.
Head Coaches: Jim Dooley, 1970-1971; Abe
Gibron 1972-1974; Jack Pardee, 1975-1977; Neill Armstrong 1978-1979
Championships: None, made NFC Playoffs in
1977 and 1979
Records: Best 10-6, 1979; Worst 3-11, 1973